The Fine Art of the Slowdown


On the waterfront, it’s called “hard-timing” or “working to rule.” By any name, it means work on the docks is slowing down.

Cranes move at half speed. Paperwork gets lost. And break times are assiduously observed. All of it can create a backup of ships waiting to unload, triggering losses for cargo companies that can quickly climb into the millions of dollars.

Terminal operators characterize a union slowdown as a “strike with pay” and claim the tactic is routinely used by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union when contract talks stall.

This year is no exception, the employers say. This week, the Pacific Maritime Assn. accused the ILWU of refusing to send crews to unload a cargo ship from China docked at the Stevedoring Services of America terminal in Long Beach.

The union denied the accusation, saying it simply did not have enough skilled workers to send to SSA. But the tensions nearly led to a lockout of ILWU workers that could have shut down the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and ultimately crippled cargo traffic up and down the coast.


The back-and-forth left many port veterans recalling past union tactics that accomplished the same goal: gumming up the works.

“There are many ways of playing this game,” said one company executive who asked not to be named, fearing his dock could be targeted next.

For example, crane operators have been known to suddenly slow down and equipment drivers to start strictly adhering to the speed limit: a mere 10 mph in some cases.

“A good crane driver can do 25, 30 even 35 moves an hour,” said Don Crosatto, a district officer with the International Assn. of Machinists in Oakland, which has a long-running jurisdictional dispute with the ILWU concerning maintenance and repair workers at the docks.

“But when these guys want to develop a case of the slows, they’re doing 18,” Crosatto added. “The net effect is that instead of a job taking four hours, it takes nine. That backs up everything else and cascades down through the system.”

PMA said the union staged slowdowns during each of the past two contract negotiations, in 1996 and 1999. The union, in turn, denied they happened every time.

Expecting a repeat this year, the shipping association commissioned time-and-motion studies to establish average productivity rates at each of the coast’s 29 ports. The speed of each crane at each port was monitored in different circumstances: in daylight and at night, in sunshine and in rain.

Those rates can then be easily compared with crane speeds during an alleged slowdown.

What happened in Long Beach this week was not a classic slowdown. Because sufficient work crews were not dispatched, fewer cranes were operated than the shipping line wanted.

PMA and individual shipping lines argued the effect was the same as a slowdown. Still, there was room for argument.

“A slowdown is when you go to work and work slowly,” explained Jay Luera, Secretary-Treasurer of ILWU Local 13, which represents nearly 5,000 longshore workers in Los Angeles and Long Beach. “You work to the safety contract. You follow the posted speed limit of 10 miles an hour. You don’t work overtime. Maybe everybody takes their lunch at the same time.”

Luera conceded that such tactics might have been used in previous years. But he insisted it didn’t happen in Long Beach this week.

“This year, we’re not even considering that,” he said.

Tom Warren, a veteran ILWU clerk and a Los Angeles port commissioner, said he knows what a slowdown looks like.

“You see nothing but trucks down the streets, lined up outside the terminals,” he said. “Nothing moves as fast as normal. Guys don’t drive so well ... people’s problem-solving skills are suddenly, shall we say, diminished.”

Warren compared the shippers’ accusations this week to those made three years ago, when a shortage of rail cars led to a long spell of port congestion that tied up ships and eventually prompted state legislative hearings. “We got the blame, but when they did the investigation, they found out it was the railroad,” he said.

Slowdowns are prohibited by labor contracts and a union can be fined for violations. So typically, accusations of slowdowns arise when a contract has expired--which is the case now.

West Coast dockworkers have been working without a contract since Sept. 2.

“As long as there is no contract in force, we expect (slowdowns) will continue to take place,” said shipping lines’ spokesman Steve Sugerman.